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Fighter Pilots Were Prepared To Die On Sept. 11

An F-16 fighter jet.
Michael Williams
Getty Images
An F-16 fighter jet.

As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks draws closer, we're pointing to some of the stories being told about that day and the days since.

"We wouldn't be shooting it down. We'd be ramming the aircraft. ... I would essentially be a kamikaze pilot."

That's what Maj. Heather "Lucky" Penney tells The Washington Post in a remarkable story today.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Penney, then a lieutenant, "had her hand on the throttle of an F-16 and she had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93," the Post writes. But neither she nor her commander, who was ready to go in another fighter, had any weapons to fire at the hijacked jet — which was headed toward Washington, D.C. The jets only had dummy bullets, still loaded after a training mission.

So the plan was, if necessary, to fly straight into the passenger jet.

Penney and Col. Marc Sasseville did scramble their jets and were on their way to intercept Flight 93 when passengers on board took action and fought back against the hijackers. The jet crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa.

"The real heroes are the passengers on Flight 93 who were willing to sacrifice themselves," Penney tells the Post. "I was just an accidental witness to history."

Update at 11:45 a.m. ET. Other Pilots' Stories:

Earlier this week, our colleagues at WBUR in Boston aired an interview with National Guard pilots Lt. Col. Dan Nash and Col. Tim Duffy. They also scrambled that day and were headed toward New York when the second of the World Trade Center towers was hit. Their jets were armed that day and the pilots were prepared to fire if other hijacked passenger jets were in the air.

"The hardest part of the day," Duffy says, came when they were flying over the Trade Center just as the second tower collapsed.

"As I'm looking at the square, the roof, it starts getting smaller," he says. "All of a sudden I saw the plume coming out of the bottom, it was falling away from me when we're looking at it."

"You give yourself a little bit of time — 10, 15 seconds, whatever it is — to kind of be horrified, and then you have to just kind of push it out of your mind," Duffy adds. "Not that you won't deal with it at some point, but just not now."

WBUR's Sept. 11-related stories are collected here.

Other Sept. 11-related stories of note today include:

-- " 'The Banality Of Evil': Following The Steps To Sept. 11." (Morning Edition)

-- "Mission Unfinished: In the twilight of America's decade-long, multibillion-dollar intervention, Afghanistan remains highly unstable, the Pakistanis trust us less than ever, and it is not at all clear how 'the big things are going to turn out.' " (The New York Times)

And for much more, see NPR.org's "Reflecting on Sept. 11, 2001" page.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.